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Aug. 11, 2011

8 Feet of Justice

by Sam Flatow

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With the recent surge of cephalopod popularity, I must advocate for one of the most widely recognized yet underappreciated of the family. If you aren’t responsible for one of the nearly 150,000 different views of last week’s “Where’s the Octopus?”, you should. Without it, I fear the rest of this article will be will seem strange.

No, it’s not the squid, he get’s all the attention he needs with his colossal kin. It’s not the cuddly cuttlefish, though cute he may be. It’s the octopus. While its invisibility has been immortalized in SciFri history, it’s vital to understand that no matter how alien, octopuses are our spineless cousins. Nobody loves the lonely octopus. And why? They’re invertebrates! It’s phylist I tell you (prejudiced by phylum). “Oh but Sam,” you say, “vertebrates are a subphyla.” That’s not the point!

Well, the octopuses have made their case and the British have heard their plea. In 1993 they were given honorary backbones in the United Kingdom to be protected as equal to vertebrates for humane scientific study due to their smarts. But why should they need backbones? Does a spinal column grant superiority? It certainly makes it more difficult to squeeze through the tiny gaps of oppression, I’ll tell you that!

And tools!

If an octopus can work a coconut, then why not a voting lever? Because of the anti-invertebrate voting age. Eighteen is about 9 times the life span of the common octopus. Meanwhile, Paul the Octopus was a diplomat before the age of 3. Using what I call “psychic psoccer pseudoscience” (or “fantastic football foresight” for those across the pond), Paul correctly predicted the outcome of the 2010 world cup, earning true recognition as an equal: Spanish citizenship in a town best known for calamari and an ambassadorship before he passed away at the ripe old age of 2 and a half, younger than Einstein when he learned to talk! So, not only can octopuses hide from predators with camouflage, some can hide from parking tickets with diplomatic immunity. I’d take that over a spine any day.

We fear the cephalopod. From 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to H.P. Lovecraft, literature is full of tentacled tales of terror. It’s books that change “spineless” into a term of loathing. Cowardly, timid, weak – those are the whispered lies of a thesaurus. Thesaurus, hmph! What is a thesaurus? A bunch of synonyms playing at ferocity: Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, Thesaurus…There goes the pretender now. Fraud! Fake! Phony! How’s that for synonyms!? And what does the dictionary have to say about octopuses? “2. a powerful influential organization with far-reaching effects, esp harmful ones.” Aha! A bookish conspiracy!

They must be jealous – when was the last time you saw a hardcover with one arm, let alone 8? Oh yes, some have gaudy markers, but they seem like flattened excuses for tentacles to me. Maybe the Kindle will treat invertebrates better, but it will be a while before we can know for sure. Until then, trust no one with a spine, especially a book!

About Sam Flatow

Sam is an assistant producer at Science Friday where he prepares the tasty SciFri snacks and blogs about smart cephalopods and zombie ants.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

Science Friday® is produced by the Science Friday Initiative, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

Science Friday® and SciFri® are registered service marks of Science Friday, Inc. Site design by Pentagram; engineering by Mediapolis.

 

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